State Library of South Australia

One hundred years of children at the State Library of South Australia

Date: 11 March 2015

This year, we are privileged to present the retrospective exhibition of work by Dame Lynley Dodd at the State Library of South Australia. It is fitting that in 2015 we celebrate this renowned international children's author because one hundred years ago we began providing services for children.

Brenda Kekwick and children
Brenda Kekwick and children (Source - The Housewife, May 1936, page 11)

In 1915, the second year of World War One, we opened Australia's first public Children's Library on 16 February. Story telling for children started as paid storytellers read for one hour a week. The Children's Library had 775 books and was located on the ground floor of the Jervois Wing in the room overlooking North Terrace.

In 1927 we moved the Children's Library to an adjacent building which had housed the South Australian Police Barracks. Youngsters in Adelaide heard books read by expressive story readers such as Brenda Kekwick.


Brenda Kekwick memorial bookcase
Brenda Kekwick memorial bookcase


Brenda was involved in Adelaide's talented and enthusiastic amateur theatre culture. South Australia's population was too small to sustain professional theatre companies. Brenda acted with the Adelaide Repertory Theatre, Ab Intra, The People's Theatre and the WEA Little Theatre where she also directed plays. In 1932 Brenda sang in Lochinvar with the Conservatorium Opera class in Adelaide.

In the 1930's Adelaide suffered from the worldwide economic depression. Theatre workers in SA needed to earn a living and Brenda worked as a bookseller at John Martin's. Meanwhile she founded the Junior Theatre for whom she wrote seven plays. Opening with a matinee in Victoria Square's New Rechabite Hall on 16 June 1934 it was Adelaide's first significant performance by children, with audience participation by children. Their training in stagecraft by Brenda Kekwick allowed them to also provide technical aspects of productions.

On 17 April 1936, aged 28, Brenda died, surprising many who had not realised she had tuberculosis. According to the Advertiser (20 April 1936, p. 20):

"She had an outstanding capacity for the training of children to act, and many of her pupils have done well on the amateur stage. Miss Kekwick was associated with the Adelaide Repertory Theatre and was a foundation member of the Little Theatre. She wrote many short plays-whimsical adaptations of fairy tales-and other works for the amateur stage."

Her friends and associates donated 80 books on stagecraft for children, and a bookcase to house them, to the State Library of South Australia. Today the wooden bookcase can be seen in the foyer of the newly restored Institute Building at the front of the State Library of SA. It features carvings designed by Mrs. Margaret Bevan. Three members of the South Australian School of Arts made the bookcase including George Mills who carved the top panel which depicts a man and a woman giving their child into the hands of Father Time. The awestruck child is hiding its eyes behind its hands. Mary Harris, who had recently retired from teaching at the School of Arts, organised this bookcase and chose the inscription which is carved from shelf to shelf. From Francis Thompson's essay on Shelley, printed in capital letters, are the words:

"Know ye what it is to be a child?
It is to believe in love; to believe
In loveliness, to believe in belief.
It is to be so little that the elves
Can reach to whisper in your ear."

The books for the children's bookcase were selected by Mr. HR Purnell and Miss EA Morley and included all aspects of youth theatre training - opera, circus, pantomime, pageantry, the use of paint, makeup and fabric, scenic design and construction, production (directing), speech and voice development and play scripts. Titles included:

  • The Minstrel Easy by Walter Ben Hare
  • Pegasus Perplexing by Le Baron Russell
  • Plays for Marionettes by Maurice Sands
  • Otherland Plays by A. Simms
  • Little Plays from Shakespeare
  • "A Book of the Savoy Operas"
  • Johnny Crowe's Garden by Leslie Brooke
  • Fifty Figure and Character Dances by Elizabeth Turner Bell with a companion volume of music for the dances: Early One Morning by Walter de la Mere
  • How to Put on an Amateur Circus by FA Hacker and PW Eames
  • The Children's Matinee by Noel Streatfield.

1936 was the year South Australia celebrated its centenary. Local publisher Rigby's published A Book of South Australian Women in the First Hundred Years. Brenda Kekwick's short children's play The Clown and The Memory is amongst the items within.

The State Library of South Australia holds a collection of Brenda Kekwick's writing in its archives (catalogued as PRG 658).

Story by: Rose Wilson

Back to e-xtra 2015 - Autumn stories

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